069 On Looking Into the Abyss


One of America’s finest historians, Gertrude Himmelfarb, has published a collection of essays entitled On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1995). Her vision of postmodernism’s abyss, the denial of reason, truth, justice, morality reality” (p. 149) disturbs her. She hopes to disturb her readers! She writes hoping to recover some of Lionel Trilling’s “moral realism” and “moral imagination,” intellectual virtues evident in classical historians such as Tacitus, who said: “‘This I regard as history’s highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds'” (p. 48). Tragically, Himmelfarb things, such qualities are sadly lacking in the most celebrated academic luminaries in America.

Along with many Jews, Himmelfarb is distressed by the apparent indifference to monumental events such as the holocaust by “philosophers and literary critics for whom there is no reality but only language, no philosophy but only a play of mind, no morality but only rhetoric and aesthetics” (p. xi). Richard Rorty, rooted in the thought of Martin Heidegger, avers that his own discipline, philosophy, should be played like a game, that ethics be “playfully” treated, and that “only a `metaphysical prig’ believes in such things as `truth’ and `reality'” (p. xii). Such attitudes mark a leading deconstructionist, Michel Foucault, who said: “‘To all those who still wish to talk about man, about his reign or his liberation, to all those who still ask themselves questions about what man is in his essence, to all those who wish to take him as their starting-point in their attempts to reach the truth . . . to all these warped and twisted forms of reflection we can answer only with a philosophical laugh” (p. 160). In response, Himmelfarb, unamused, declares, “Perhaps this book should be labeled `The Confessions of an unregenerate Prig.'” She takes seriously such things a truth and reality, for she writes out of the anguish of a Holocaust which surely happened! Indeed, Himmelfarbs’s ire intensifies as she demonstrates the ideological links between today’s deconstructionists and yesterday’s Nazis.

The book’s initial essay, “On Looking into the Abyss,” delves into the perilous waters of postmodernism, troubled by the monsters of nihilism, immorality, irrationality, and polymorphous sexual perversity. Today’s gurus, following Nietzsche’s nihilism, are celebrated “deconstructionists” such as Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, insiste there is no “correspondence” between reality and our ideas about it. Thus University students no longer study great works of literature, but indulge in “reader response” to “texts” of desultory worth, as likely to study Superman comics as Shakespearean comedies. The only guideline, establishing which “texts” will be used, is that they be “interesting.”

She wonders: “What happens to our respect for philosophy–the `love of wisdom’ as it once was–when we are told that philosophy has nothing to do with either wisdom or virtue, that what passes as metaphysics is really linguistics, that morality is a form of aesthetics, and that the best thing we can do is not to take philosophy seriously? And what happens to our sense of the past when we are told that there is no past save that which the historian creates; or to our perception of the momentousness of history when we are assured that it is we who give moment to history; or to that most momentous historical event, the Holocaust, when it can be so readily `demystified’ and `normalized,’ `structuralized’ and `deconstructed'”? (p. 25).

Her essay entitled “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?” deserves serious reading and discussion, especially by Himmelfarb’s professional peers. She notes: “A historian brought up in the old school of footnoting is struck by the growing number of scholarly books that have no notes at all, that even pride themselves on their lack of notes. Like all moral lapses, this one started on a slippery slope: the relegation of notes to the back of the book, the conversion to endnotes” (p. 122). Consequently, Arno Mayer recently wrote “a highly controversial and totally undocumented book on the Holocaust” which dismisses footnotes as “a fetish” which restrain a creative thinker’s conjectures!

This leads us to “Postmodernist History,” an underlying theme as well as concluding essay in this volume. History, like other versions of postmodernism, assumes a relativistic stance. It is, however, “so radical, so absolute, as to be antithetical to both history and truth. For postmodernism denies not only suprahistorical truths but historical truths, truths relative to particular times and places” (p. 131). Culprits in this sorry story, Himmelfarb shows, are Nietzsche and Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault. Under their auspices, “historians” now write whatever pleases them. Just as literary scholars toy with the “texts” and twist them any way they choose, so postmodern historians cast loose from any objective record and tell stories deigned to empower whatever class they support at the moment.

Twenty years ago, historians still placed “a premium on archival research and primary sources, the authenticity of documents and reliability of witnesses, the need to obtain substantiating and countervailing evidence; and, at a more mundane level, the accuracy of quotations and citations, prescribed forms of documentation in footnotes and bibliography, and all the rest of the `methodology’ that goes into the `canon of evidence'” (p. 136). Such “old-fashioned” care has dissipated in those circles where “truth” and “reality” are denied. Thus we find an approach which “relativizes, `deprivileges,’ `decenters,’ indeed, deconstructs the Holocaust so thoroughly as to deny its reality” (p. 143). While few contemporary historians would deny Hitler’s genocidal policies, their philosophy of history easily permits such. In Himmelfarb’s judgment, “Committed to the `fictive’ nature of history, liberated from `fact fetishism,’ uninhibited and unapologetic in the exercise of the `imaginative creation’ that is presumed to be of the essence of `historical imagination,’ postmodernist history may well take the form of fictional history” (p. 146). “Where once historians were exhorted to be accurate and factual, they are now urged to be imaginative and inventive. Instead of `re-creating’ the past, they are told to `create’ it; instead of `reconstructing’ history, to `construct’ or `deconstruct’ it” (p. 147).

As a woman, Himmelfarb is intensely disturbed by much that flows the “feminist” flag in historical writing. Postmodernism and feminism easily combine, sharing as they do common roots in socialism and existentialism. Repudiating traditional history–allegedly invalid because written by men– feminists embrace a political agenda designed to rectify injustices through telling stories which bolster their ideology. Whether or not such stories have any basis in fact counts for little. What counts is the power derived from persuasion. To awaken sympathy for victims, to arouse contempt for oppressors, justifies any distortion of the evidence!

Fortunately, Himmelfarb thinks, much that now disturbs her will pass. Fads easily prevail in academia, and she hopes the intellectual fads she denounces are but blips on the radar screen of scholarly endeavor. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a whole generation of historians to the fad! Few younger historians have been trained in the rigors of sound methodology. Too many of them lack the necessary discipline to do demanding intellectual work. “Gresham’s law applies in history as surely as in economics: bad habits drive out good; easy methods drive out hard ones. And there is no doubt that the old history, traditional history, is hard” (p. 159).

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The abyss Himmelfarb fears is, to Walter Truett Anderson, an arena of exciting activity, filled with pioneers of a new intellectual realm. He describes it in Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, c. 1990). Of Anderson, Rollo May says, “I know of no contemporary writer who has such a penetrating view of the new world into which we are moving.”

Anderson enthusiastically espouses postmodernism, with its doctrinaire relativism and commitment to the “social construction of reality.” Waging war against those who believe in any form of absolutism and objective, truth, postmodernists seek to establish a radically new approach. Reality is, quite simply, whatever we want it to be. Thus, as Luigi Pirandello entitled his 1916 play, Right You Are If You Think You Are. More recently, the film director Jonathan Miller labeled the world as an “emergent fiction” which must be continually created anew. “Create your own reality,” a current slogan, has ancient roots! This proposition, he believes, “will be the core of the first global civilization” (p. 3). The Humpty Dumpty called modernity, rooted in rationality and objectivity, has fallen and cannot be restored to his place of eminence.

The collapse of the old order has involved three steps. First, “old ways of belief” have dissipated. Yeats saw it coming in “The Second Coming,” discerning that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The Greek’s quest for timeless truths, incorporated into the Christian commitment to revealed, absolute truths, must be discarded, Anderson insists, as artifacts of an antiquated world. Second, conflicts over issues such as race, sex, class, nationality, have divided people into participants in a “culture war,” especially at odds over moral issues such as abortion. Third, a truly new “worldview” is immanent, displacing the tribal “barbarians” who assumed their own limited views were forms of Absolute Truth or Natural Law. A new global culture is aborning, Anderson believes, and it must necessarily be rooted in cultural relativism, multiculturalism, diversity.

This new worldview dismisses facts and logic. History is a “playground” wherein we can romp and build sand castles to our own liking. Thus Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade asserts that “early civilizations, under the influence of female-spirit religion, were wondrously benign and creative until–in the eleventh century BC, apparently–macho barbarians from Europe and Asia came down from the hills bringing a new culture of violence and domination” (p. 9). She thus urges a recovery of that pristine feminine ethos and polity. Despite its manifold distortions and factual untruths, the book has become for many a “historical” handbook with which to persuade the unwary of some contemporary feminist theses. Similarly, advocates of the “Gaia” hypothesis embrace an ancient myth, a “noble lie,” which enables them to urge everyone to embrace an environmental faith. “We have many such noble lies,” Anderson says, “created out of the best political intentions” (p. 11). So long as you intend to make the world better, falsehood is fine!

To Anderson, the scholarly world has shifted to an increasingly postmodern perspective. Old-fashioned scientists, historians, logicians still cling to the notion reality really exists apart from us, but such views will be jettisoned in the brave new world awaiting us. “Constructivist” scientists, psychologists, philosophers are busily engaged, spinning out new versions of imagined worlds, freed at last from the constraints of any hard, objective realms which would impose themselves on the mind. Thinking, some say, “is a process of computing a reality, not the reality'” (p. 68). Some of the more radical constructivists, such as the philosopher Nelson Goodman, openly declare: “‘When I say that worlds are made, I mean it literally'” (p. 76).

The real harbingers of postmodern thought now rule the literary field. No longer are classics read with any concern for the author or his intent. Rather, “texts” provide vistas for readers, stimuli for thought which has little connection with the “text” being “studied.” Anderson tells of an encounter between one of the most influential postmodernists, Stanley Fish, who was asked, by a student, “Is there a text in this class?” Fish indicated he was using an anthology of great texts. To which the student replied: “No, no. I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?” He understood postmodernism! For to folks like Fish the “text” is not Shakespeare’s plays or Milton’s poems; the “text” is the reader who responds to what’s read.

Anderson then pursues the “deconstructionists” who embrace the theories of Derrida and Faucault. In its most important sense, “Deconstruction is about language, about the impossibility of representation. It is an assault upon `logocentrism’–the idea that there is anything beyond the human symbolic system that a written work can refer to so it can be an authentic statement from one person to another about something” (p. 90). Even the law is being deconstructed! Prestigious schools, such as Harvard Law School, have, for two decades, been locked into fierce debates as modernists and postmodernists vie for power. Postmodern insurgents argue the law is simply whatever a judge chooses to read into a statute or the Constitution.

The wave of the future, quite simply, is that of postmodernism. To the extent it is a powerful force in our world, works such as this sketch it. This book is flawed by numerous factual errors and faulty judgments. When he deals with the realm of religion, for example, Anderson apparently thinks a few witches are as significant as millions of evangelicals, that conservative theology (which somehow survives from century to century) cannot last, and that New Age fantasies are something unique to our enlightened age! What’s missing in this book is sufficient historical understanding and philosophical clarity. It is, in parts particularly, a kind of gushy cheerleading for the kinds of though Anderson happens to like.

In a very real sense, Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be, while illustrating lots that’s going on in America, makes no more sense than its oxymoronic title! For Reality simply is what Is! This book, like its title, is clever and at many points informative, but it is fatally flawed by self-contradictions, superficial research, and sloppy logic.

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In A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1996), Stanley J. Grenz provides a useful, nicely-balanced overview and critique of the phenomenon. He believes we are in the midst of a mighty movement, a shift from modernity to postmodernity which resembles the shift from the Medieval to Modern worlds. The modern ideals, clearly evident in the Enlightenment, which emphasized reason and objectivity, came under attack a century ago as Nietzsche launched his intellectual mortar attack. Only two decades ago, however, did his views gain a significant foothold in Western culture.

The most influential leaders of postmodern thought are Frenchmen– Jacques Derrida and Michael Foucault–and the American philosopher Richard Rorty. In sum: their work “reflects what seems to have become the central dictum of postmodern philosophy: `All is difference.’ This view sweeps away the `uni’ of the `universe’ sought by the Enlightenment project” (p. 7). Wherever one looks–art, architecture, theater, fiction, film, TV–postmodernism exerts its influence.

It is especially evident in film, TV and rock music. Indeed, “living in a postmodern society means inhabiting a film-like world–a realm in which truth and fiction merge” (p. 33). Filmmakers have paved the way, but TV has been “a more efficient vehicle for disseminating the postmodern ethos throughout society” (p. 33). Television, for many, makes things real. Thus staged-for-TV events carry more credibility than actual events on a nearby street corner. Largely missing in such media is any linkage with what has traditionally been known as an objectively real world. As Grenz says: “This abandonment of the concept of the objective world is a result of the postmodern rejection of a realist understanding of knowledge and truth in favor of a nonrealist understanding. That is to say, we have moved from an objectivist to a constructionist outlook” (p. 40).

To provide perspective, Grenz conducts a tour detailing the “rise of the modern world.” During the past 500 years, birthed by the Renaissance and Age of Reason, a “modern” world emerged, given shape by thinkers such as Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, John Locke and Isaac Newton, who espoused principles such as autonomy, nature, harmony, and progress. The consummation of the Modern project appeared in the “Copernican Revolution” wrought by Immanuel Kant, who “provided the foundation for the final emergence of modernism as a cultural phenomenon. And his work marked the inauguration of modernity in its fullness, the era characterized by a focus on intense self-reflection” (p. 79). Yet Kant subverted as well as summarized Modernity. “In the Kantian system, the Cartesian self became not just the focus of philosophical attention but the entire subject matter of philosophy. Rather than viewing the self as one of several entities in the world, Kant envisioned the thinking self in a sense “creating” the world–that is, the world of its own knowledge. The focus of philosophical reflection ever since has been this world-creating self” (p. 79). Kant sought to equip the individual to understand the universal, but in fact he left the individual knowing only himself.

Then came Nietzsche, the prophet of postmodernism. Clearly a nihilist, Nietzsche “contends that we have no access to reality whatsoever. In fact, he claims that there is no `true world.’ Everything is a `perspectival appearance’ the origin of which lies within us. We live in a constructed world that comes from our own perspective” (p. 91). There are no “things,” only “masks” concealing whatever is. To Nietzsche, “truth” is nothing more than the metaphors and fictions we toss off to express our momentary feelings. We create our “truths” and “values.” Whatever pleases us is, for us, true and good.

After taking 160 pages to describe postmodernism, Grenz devotes a dozen pages to “the Gospel and the postmodern context,” seeking, as a theologian, to rightly address it. “The shift from the familiar territory of modernity to the uncharted terrain of postmodernity has grave implications for those who seek to live as Christ’s disciples in the new context” (p. 162). Focused on Christ, Christians obviously resist postmodernism’s effort to de-center truth and values. The Gospel is not simply one story among many others, but the universal message for all mankind. Yet postmodernist criticism of Enlightenment philosophy may well open many doors for Christians, and the coming world may well be more congenial to the Faith than the one now ending.

Grenz’s work is readable, critical but not caustic, serving its purpose as a “primer” for Christians seeking a basic understanding of postmodernism.